You retired in 2010. How are you enjoying retirement from professional football and how is life for you these days away from the pitch?
I think if you ask any footballer initially it is a big shock. My retirement came through injury, an injury that I sustained at Hartlepool United. I have four knee operations because there was an infection in it and it was recurring so I decided to call it a day when I was 33 years old so that was a shock for me and a bit of an adjustment.
I did not start to do my coaches badges which I had played to do but I did not foresee myself retiring at 33 years old I thought I might get to 35 or 36 so I was in the process of actually trying to start my badges but I eventually picked up my coaches badges and ever since retiring from playing I have managed to get myself up the coaching ladder and my main focus is has been working in within football in a coaching capacity.
You played seven seasons for Coventry City. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any highlights or special memories?
Yes, When I went over to Coventry it was a dream come true for any kid from Ireland especially to get over to England and be part of a Premier League setup. I initially went over with no real thoughts about where I was going to go. I was just happy with the chance to be involved with a professional football club and I really enjoyed it. I loved training twice everyday and I would also go and train in my own time as well.
The whole scenario being behind the scenes having watched all this on TV as a young kid was great. I learned a lot from fellow coaches, players and managers along the way. Looking back on my seven season’s at Coventry City on one hand I was initially lucky to get my chance in the first team because we had a few injuries to the likes of Stuart Robson and Lee Hurst which catapulted me into the first team squad. I had a good couple of seasons and then I was in the wilderness a little bit for a while.
Towards season 1997/1998 I got a few more games but ultimately it went to the stage where I knew I was not going to be playing regular football and I needed to get away. The highlights of my time at the club are obviously playing in the Premier League and we had some good victories along the way, our notable victories were at Anfield and we beat Manchester United at Highfield Road too.
Surviving the in Premier League was a big thing for Coventry City at that stage as well so during the seven seasons that I was there staying in the Premier League was the main focus and the two seasons where I played most of my games 20 and 19 games respectively both seasons were Coventry City’s highest finishing position in the Premier League so I look back at that with a little bit of self satisfaction as well.
You have been capped by your country of Republic of Ireland at youth international level. How do you look back on your time representing your country and what are your highlights and memories of playing international football?
It was amazing really. I am from a place in Ireland called Limerick where you would not see many internationals coming out of, it is mainly Dublin focused because obviously it is more competitive up there and the population is bigger so you tend to get the better players in Dublin.
I managed to start off getting into the under 15, 16 international scene and I worked my way up to the under 18’s and 21’s and I eventually got to Republic of Ireland B without ever getting to be a senior international. Looking back at it. My highlights of my international career were playing against top players of my own age group around Europe.
I managed to see so many countries in Europe. I have visited between 15 and 20 countries playing international football. I played in the under 16 European Championship were we played against the likes of Spain, The Netherlands and Romania and it that Dutch team in particular I remember vividly Clarence Seedorf who was the same age group and he stood out even then, he was not quite physically developed at that time but what a player he was. I thought Clarence Seedorf was a super player.
You accrued good experience at club and youth international level during your professional career when you look back could you say who were among the best players you played alongside?
Yes, I played alongside quite a few decent players during my time and looking back at my time at Coventry City a player like myself got the opportunity to play in the same time as Gary McAllister and Kevin Richardson who was coming to the end of his career. They are two lads who were part of Championship winning teams at Leeds United and Arsenal respectively.
I played with Graham Kavanagh at Cardiff City who was also a very good player and he managed to go on to playing at international level too and he also played in the Premier League with Wigan Athletic and Sunderland AFC. They were key players in own position. Gordon Strachan was player/ coach at the time coming towards the end of his own career as well.
We also had young talents the likes of Darren Huckerby, Noel Whelan. At Cardiff City I played with the likes of Danny Gabbidon and James Collins who went on to have decent careers as centre halves in the Premier League also Robert Earnshaw who was one of the best finishers I have ever seen. I had the opportunity to play with many decent players during my professional career.
You mentioned Clarence Seedorf I can imagine in your position as a midfielder that you came up against many good opponents during your professional career, could you say which opponents stood out in terms of talent and ability?
Yes, There are lots of opponents that stand out Eric Cantona in particular when he was at Manchester United in terms of the whole package because even on the pitch you could feel the influence that he had on that club over that couple of seasons. He turned Manchester United into a Championship winning team with his aura and obvious ability.
I have also been lucky to play again some super midfielders Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson in particular which gave me a great buzz and Roy Keane too. Michael Carrick when he was a young kid at West Ham United you could even see them how good he was going to be. Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt too. Having played with and against Gary McAllister and I could see how good he was. I have played against many top quality players during my career.
Finally Willie, could you say who were the coaches and managers that meant a lot to you and played a key role in your development as a professional football?
Yes, Looking at it now and being part of the coaching structure and looking at what goes into the coaching of kids now and how far it has come since I was a kid, kids these days are given so much more attention to detail, so many more tools to learn the game whereas years ago there was no video analysis and not an awful lot of tactical stuff going on.
Looking back it was more of a motivation and a self belief thing that managers would have given players rather than tactical knowledge and feedback that they do these days. From a personal point of view Bobby Gould really believes in me and he gave me my opportunity at Coventry City. He showed belief in me and gave me that chance as a young kid and put my in there in the deep end. He was a man manager who knew the game inside out otherwise he would have not got where he did in his career.
He would be very much a motivational manager and he would know how people tick and try to get the best out of them. All the clubs he was at he would have never have had a big budget so he would have to try and squeeze every ounce out of that player for his team to compete with the better sides and he has proven it by his exploits at Wimbledon and Coventry City.
He also went on to manage Wales where he had better players at his disposal. Lennie Lawrence at Cardiff also showed a lot of belief in me at a time where there were quite a lot of changes at the club a new players coming in, he stood by me and keeping playing me and held me in high regard and he felt that I was very important to the team. They are two managers that were two really positive influences behind me in relation to believing in me as a player giving me that self belief.
In terms of the other side of the game from a coaching point of view Gordon Strachan was probably the best coach I had on the pitch in relation to learning more about and improving my game. What I would say that he was at a stage where he had just finished playing and was in a player/ coach role and I don’t think he quite grasped dealing with young players at that stage of his managerial career. I think he would treat young players just as much as older players which is fine but sometimes young kids who probably would not have the experience or the self belief as older professional players but on the pitch he was really good, really enthusiastic and very passionate. They would be the three managers I would say that had the most influence on my career in terms of giving me a chance and believing in me.